There's something happening south of the border, and chilangos (Mexico City natives) would rather keep it a secret. It's hard to believe that the D.F. (Distrito Federal) is finally cleaning up its act. Crime has dropped some 50 percent in the past decade (thanks in part to the hiring of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a "crime consultant") and a new generation is invigorating once-sleepy neighborhoods.
Condesa and Roma—two such areas—are centrally located between trendy Polanco and the touristy Centro Histórico, just south of the busy Zona Rosa. But unlike those more congested areas, the wide boulevards here are tree-lined and quiet. Artists stroll the streets (a rare sight in this car-obsessed metropolis), walking dogs and ducking into the shops, galleries, and restaurants that have overtaken European-style town houses and Art Deco storefronts. These neighborhoods feel surprisingly like Europe—though far closer to home and with a much better exchange rate. Chilangos may want to keep the news to themselves, but some things are too good not to share.
WHERE TO STAY Housed in a 1920's French Neoclassical building, Condesa DF (102 Avda. Veracruz; 52-55/5282-3100; www.condesadf.com; doubles from $185) is, for now, the only hotel in the immediate area. A partnership between the owners of Polanco's Hotel Habita and New York-based restaurateur and hotelier Jonathan Morr, the 40-room property was designed by India Mahdavi. She was tapped to create a modern space with a rooftop terrace and bar overlooking the lush Parque España. • In Polanco, the new W Mexico City (252 Campos Eliseos, Polanco; 877/946-8357 or 52-55/9138-1800; www.starwood.com; doubles from $249) offers some of the best views of the city—from the guest bathrooms: each has a picture window covered by thick wooden blinds and a hammock to relax in post-shower. On an expense account?Check into the 2,500-square-foot Extreme Wow suite on the 25th floor, with a 16-jet shower and a pillow-filled "playroom." • The glass-encased façade of Hotel Habita (201 Avda. Presidente Masaryk, Polanco; 52-55/5282-3100; www.hotelhabita.com; doubles from $265) glows from within. Though the white-on-white rooms are well appointed (duvets, Hermès amenities), guests spend most of their time at the rooftop bar and pool—the place to hang out late at night.
WHERE TO EAT Locals lunch between one and three and plan on dinner at about nine (or later). The light-filled, lofty Contramar (200 Calle Durango, Roma; 52-55/5514-3169; lunch for two $50) draws a crowd of businessmen in white shirts and models in tight jeans and stilettos. Small plates include sushi-grade tuna tostadas with avocado, soft-shell crab tacos, and grilled octopus in olive oil and paprika. • The windows of Capicua (66 Calle Nueva León, Condesa; 52-55/5211-5280; dinner for two $50) open onto the street, and the sounds of a lively after-work crowd waft down the block. Regulars linger for hours over glasses of wine and tasty tapas (cheese croquettes, Spanish sausages, foie gras with fig jam, tiny steak sandwiches with Brie). • There's often a wait to sit outside at Fonda Garufa (93 Calle Michoacán, Condesa; 52-55/5286-8295; dinner for two $35), an Argentinean restaurant in the center of Condesa's restaurant row. Tender steak—marinated with spices and serrano chile—is a specialty here and served perfectly medium-rare. • For divine tacos, try the bare-bones El Califa (22 Calle Altata, Condesa; 52-55/5271-7666; dinner for two $20). Choose from chicken, beef, or pork topped with cheese and slices of super-ripe avocado, and don't forget an ice-cold Sol beer to wash it all down. • Kaiten Sushi (22 Plaza Villa de Madrid, Roma; 52-55/ 5511-8390; www.kaitensushi.com.mx; dinner for two $60) is a hot spot for playdates (kids love the Japanese animé on the flat-screen TV's) and real dates, despite the fact that there's no bar. Space-age pop plays in the background while sushi rolls zoom by on a conveyor belt. • Travazares Taberna (127 Orizaba, Roma; 52-55/5264-1421; lunch for two $20) is the perfect stop for a salad or plate of pasta in Roma. Browse through the Atrio gallery till your entrées arrive.
SWEET EXCESS On weekend afternoons, lines wind around the block at the always-popular Nevería Roxy (89 Fernando Montes de Oca, Condesa; no phone; about $1 per scoop), an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Try a cone topped with one of the more than 30 flavors, including melon, coconut, and prickly pear. • Don't leave D.F. without having the camotes de Puebla (a sweet potato candy flavored with vanilla, strawberry, or orange) at Roma's Celaya (143A Colima, Roma; 52-55/5207-5858).
WHERE TO SHOP Most small boutiques stock just one or two of each item, so if it's love at first sight, buy it on the spot. Cooperativa 244 (244 Avda. Amsterdam, Condesa; 52-55/5564-9148) showcases the work of 11 female fashion and accessories designers. The offerings are avant-garde (sheer polka-dot shirts with built-in fifties-style bras) and sized fairly small, with new creations dropped off weekly by the designers. • Around the corner, Carmen Rion (30A Avda. Michoacán, Condesa; 52-55/5264-6179) sells flowing pants, skirts, and dresses in neutral-toned and pastel cottons and linens and a small selection of men's long-sleeved guayaberas in white and pink. Check out the wall of accessories such as oilcloth bags, crocheted bikinis, and jewelry made from seed pods. • Fashion-forward chilangos love Kulte (118 Calle Atlixco, Condesa; 52-55/5211-7389) for its sneakers (old-school Nike, Puma, Adidas, and Converse), brands including Gsus from Holland, funky tees by NaCo, Savi jeans, and a plethora of Paul Frank watches and bags. • A young Argentinean couple opened Melba (147 Calle Atlixco, Condesa; 52-55/5286-4423) to sell their designs (and their friends'), including modified rugby shirts with khaki collars, Chinese-style Mary Janes in animal prints, leather cuffs, as well as vintage shoes, all at very reasonable prices.